Ministerial Statements - Procedure Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 43-63)

Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP

10 November 2010

  Hilary Benn: Good afternoon.

  Q43 Chair: Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. Unlike a court of law, you have heard what the other witness has said, so feel free to comment on anything that you have heard in the last half hour. I shall start in the same way: do you wish to make an opening statement?

  Hilary Benn: Not really, only to say that I, too, greatly welcome the fact that the Procedure Committee is looking at this question for reasons that were very well aired in the debate that took place in the summer. It seems to me that the principles we should be trying to work to are that we want the Government to make announcements and to tell the House; we want the House to know first and/or at exactly the same time as everybody else, which picks up the point that Mr Gale made a moment ago; we want Members to have the opportunity to question Ministers as appropriate; and there should be reasonable notice of what is going on, for Opposition spokespeople and of course for Members of the House. We are wrestling with all the pressures that were well set out in the debate that I referred to a moment ago. That is all I wanted to say by way of openers.


  Q44 Chair: Thank you. Could you let us know your views on the innovation suggested by the Leader of the House, that there should be a new category—a grade 2 oral statement—which is time-limited.

  Hilary Benn: In one sense, the Speaker currently judges the amount of time. If you look at the figures for the length of time that oral statements last, depending on the importance of the subject and the number of Members who want to speak, the Speaker is applying that judgment at the moment.

  One of the genuine difficulties that we are all facing and wrestling with, is the words in the ministerial code—"most important", however you define that. I must say in passing, that it seems a bit odd that the Executive are setting out to Ministers the obligations that Ministers ought to have to the House; I think the House ought to have an expectation in addition to that. What is "most important" is in the eye of the beholder.

  We are also wrestling with the problem of time. I favour looking at the possibility of using Westminster Hall for some oral statements. Considering the total time that is available, there are great pressures on the main Chamber, and we created Westminster Hall to provide more time for backbenchers, in particular, to raise questions. It has been a great success, but there are slots that we could use.

  Another practical thing we could do is that the moment a written or oral statement is made or laid, it should be e-mailed immediately to every single Member, because we are all on e-mail. If you want a belt and braces approach, we all get texts all the time from our Whips on a group text arrangement, so you could do that as well. Members would know when something had been laid and could see the text. You could also apply that to the notice arrangements. I agree with Sir George that we ought to make use of the modern technology that is available to answer some of the questions that you were raising, such as how Members will know what has been laid.

  Q45 Chair: Are you saying that if there was to be a statement—let's say it was a regional issue, something affecting Devon or perhaps Yorkshire—you would be quite happy in those circumstances for a ministerial statement to be made in Westminster Hall?

  Hilary Benn: That is one of the criteria that could be used, probably by the Speaker, in determining where the appropriate place was, because it would provide more opportunity for oral statements and it would be a way of dealing with the problem of pressure on time in the main Chamber. In the end, it is a matter of judgment. However, as I reflected after receiving your kind invitation to give evidence, why not as part of the solution use the mechanism that we have already created for some of this?

  Another suggestion that I would make is that we have created the Backbench Business Committee to protect the rights of backbenchers. In relation to some of the many written statements that go through, on which Ministers are never questioned—not that they need to be questioned on all of them—the Backbench Committee might decide that there are some on which they would like to invite Ministers to answer questions. It would be another mechanism for ensuring that the right of Members to question Ministers could happen. Again, you could do that in Westminster Hall if you felt that it was useful.

  Q46 Chair: So you would favour a written question slot in Westminster Hall, where Members could come along and question Ministers on certain written statements?

  Hilary Benn: Yes, but you would have to give Ministers notice. At the moment, the Backbench Committee is operating what Sir George christened its salon, where Members make bids for backbench business debates on a Thursday. You could have a similar mechanism. I was looking back over the written statements that have been put down in the last week, for example. Backbenchers might say, "Well, we really think that we should have an opportunity to debate beak-trimming laying hens,"—or the Leasehold Advisory Service annual report, the pension age or the convention on biological diversity. The Backbench Committee would take soundings and form a view, and say, "Right, we are going to invite the Minister to answer questions on his or her written statement at this time."

  These are ideas trying to respond to the central problem that your Committee is grappling with—how to have more opportunity for Members to hold the Executive to account and how we deal with the pressure on time.

  Q47 Chair: The reason I press you on this is that my party, when we were in opposition, was against the Government of the day in using Westminster Hall for further Government-related business. I wish to make it quite clear that you see no objection to there being a dedicated slot for Ministers to be cross-examined in Westminster Hall in the way you have just outlined.

  Hilary Benn: That is an option that ought to be considered, because it is one way to deal with the pressure on time. Secondly, in relation to Westminster Hall, obviously there are debates that are initiated by the Government as well as by select committees, and obviously by backbenchers. We need to think creatively about how we provide more opportunities, in exactly the same way as we thought creatively when establishing Westminster Hall to provide more opportunities for backbenchers to raise matters that they thought were important.   

  Chair: Thank you.

  Q48 Mr Gale: I shall come in a moment to written statements, and how Ministers should be questioned on them. Just before we leave Westminster Hall, however, there is clearly a danger that some issues could seem to have been marginalised. You heard the conversation that we had earlier with the Leader of the House about less important statements being given less time, but someone has to judge. This is awfully difficult for anybody, which is why I personally cannot help feeling that the Speaker, with his advisers, is probably the right person to do this. Something may superficially appear to be quite mundane, but it may affect a group of Members and their constituents. You have indicated that it could be the west country or Wales or whatever. The moment you go down that parochialising route, there's a danger that you shunt something into a siding—in this case the sidings of Westminster Hall. I can see a situation in which—notwithstanding the creative thinking that you are applying to this—there could be a first-class statement and a second-class statement. I just wonder how you would overcome that.

  Hilary Benn: The first thing I would say is that the House has to decide whether it thinks that Westminster Hall is a second-class place. As far as I am concerned, an adjournment debate in Westminster Hall has exactly the same value and importance as an adjournment debate in the Chamber. Having established that, we should not cede to anyone else the idea that it is second class. Part of the argument for making the suggestion is that it seems to me that it would augment the status. I am acutely conscious, Mr Gale, of the point that you make about not wanting to end up with first and second-class statements, but as I indicated earlier, the Speaker currently makes a judgment in deciding how long a statement will run, which is partly a function of the number of people still standing and partly a function of the importance of it. We give a lot of other responsibilities to the Speaker, which he exercises with great diligence, and this could be another one. In the end, a lot of this is a matter of judgment. It is a matter of judgment for Ministers, as to whether they are going to make a written statement or an oral statement. It is a matter of judgment for the Speaker as to whether or not he is going to grant an urgent question. As one of the central problems is the question of time, this provides a way—unless we extend the hours, which is the alternative—of enabling us to cut through this.

  Q49 Mr Gale: Let's come on to the written statements and, to some extent, the oral statements and blur the lines a little. There is a suggestion that Members should have the opportunity in the Chamber to question Ministers on written statements. There is a perfect logic in that. You cannot have everything done as an oral statement. John Hemming has had to leave for another Committee, but you heard the Leader of the House's answer to him when he suggested that oral statements might be released earlier. I suggested that they should be released for the media and to the House at exactly the same time, but maybe an hour or an hour and a half in front of a statement. Is there any merit in a Minister coming to the despatch box and reading a statement that every literate Member of Parliament is quite capable of reading for themselves? Might it not be better, whether that statement is written or oral, to release it in written form so that Members could then come into the Chamber briefed? That would save time and save the Minister the sweat of having to stand up and read it. Members could then get stuck in to the nitty-gritty, which is, "What's this all about?" and "How are you going to respond to this, please, Minister?"

  Hilary Benn: I see the argument, but let's apply that for a moment to the statement on the comprehensive spending review that took place on 20 October. As I recall, it lasted just under an hour. In that case, I don't think it would be sensible to say, "Here it is two hours beforehand. Now, questions." That is one end of the spectrum. The other end, if you think of written statements, is, "Yes, it's pretty short and we can read it pretty quickly and then we can get stuck in." It comes back to this question of judgment. It is certainly helpful to Members if we get as much advance notice as possible both of the fact that a statement is going to be made—whether it is oral or written—and of the content so that we can think about it and raise it. What really irritates Members, as the Committee has already indicated, is when it appears that other folk, who are not Members of Parliament, have got it before us. That is something that would be well worth looking at.

  Mr Gale: You have done this job—

  Q50 Chair: Sorry, Roger. Before we move on, may I tease a little bit more out of you on that?

  Hilary Benn: Sure.

  Q51 Chair: Let's leave aside, for the moment, Treasury-related statements, which can be market sensitive. You know, because you've been a senior Minister, that on a day when we sit at 2.30, a Minister has to notify the House authorities by, I think, 12 o'clock whether he or she is going to make an oral statement. Let's say that we had a system in place for non market-sensitive statements whereby at 12 o'clock the statement was released; it was available in the Vote Office and released to the press in written form, and the Minister could go on "The World at One" or any other lunch-time programme and talk about his statement, but then at 3.30 present himself to be questioned by Members. He would not read the statement out, because we can all read it, and he would then be subject to scrutiny by Members who were far better informed on the issue because of the early notice of the statement and having had the ability to reflect on it. What is your view of that procedure as a leading member of Her Majesty's Opposition?

  Hilary Benn: You would certainly gain in terms of Members' ability to put questions that were pertinent, well informed and researched in the time available. The disadvantage, although not from the Opposition's point of view, relates to the fact that one of the things that all of us have been seeking to do is to make the House of Commons the place where people come to hear what's going on. If all that debate has been played out and the questions have been asked on "The World at One" and the lunch-time news, there will be slightly less interest by the time you get to half-past 3. What we're trying to grapple with there is the balance between Parliament being the fulcrum of national conversation and debate about what's going on, and the relationship with the media. In the end, it seems to me, the fundamental choice that the Committee has to make is how we are going to balance those things, because it's hard to achieve both of them.

  I remember one occasion in particular, shortly after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, when he came to make his statement on the constitution of Britain. That had not been briefed. I remember sitting on the Government Benches and looking at the expressions on the faces of Opposition Members as he said things and people said, "Ooh, I hadn't heard that before." We've become so used to everything that we hear when a statement is made having been trailed beforehand that it was quite instructive and it had a galvanising effect both on the questions and on those up in the Gallery, but as we know, that has tended to be the exception rather than the rule, hence this inquiry.

  Q52 Mr Gale: You've covered most of this. I agree entirely with the Chairman's view that whichever route we recommended going down, we would want to exempt market-sensitive Treasury statements. I would probably include in that certain other things, like perhaps a statement on the London tube bombing, which took place in the rush hour, when the security services would need to brief and when the Prime Minister of the day would need to brief the Leader of the Opposition of the day and probably establish a huge degree of consensus, right up to the last minute before a statement was made. In those circumstances, it would be unreasonable to suggest that Members should have the thing first.

  Let's come back to the written statements. You heard Sir George suggest that the release should be brought forward to 7. You heard me say, and it does seem to me, that that has more to do with the media than the House of Commons. No Government is in power for ever. How would you feel if there was a fixed time—a reasonable hour in mid-morning—when all statements were released? Members could then have the opportunity to raise an urgent question, to go to the Speaker and say, "This written statement was released mid-morning and there's stuff in it that the House ought to be able to question the Minister on, so will you ask the Minister to come to the House?" That would be a fixed time, on a wholly cross-party agreed, regular basis, which would allow the House, by and large, the opportunity to do its job with Ministers first.

  Hilary Benn: I sometimes think in this debate that if the "Today" programme was on at a slightly different time, like the midday programme, a lot of these problems would disappear, to be perfectly honest. Short of the House meeting—I'm not suggesting this, I hasten to point out—just before the "Today" programme goes on air, this will always be a problem that we have to wrestle with.

  It is quite difficult for Ministers if everybody knows there's going to be an announcement on a given day on a subject. You're invited on, and, of course, the Government of the day want to argue their case, but saying, "I can talk about this, but I can't talk about that because I must reveal those details to the House of Commons first," can be difficult in those circumstances. I'm not sure about 7 o'clock, but I think that we should find a way of ensuring that those things get published at a time when Members have a reasonable opportunity to be made aware of them at the moment they are published and they have a chance to look at them.

  In this new Parliament, the extent to which the Speaker has chosen to grant urgent questions has been striking. It goes to the heart of the points that you were raising with Sir George about sanctions. I can't remember whether I was ever the subject of an urgent question, but, believe you me, as a Minister you take all things in Parliament very seriously, but you take an urgent question very, very seriously indeed. You think, "Right, we've got to get ourselves organised here." I think it's a very effective sanction and there is no doubt in my mind that the increasing tendency to grant UQs has put more of the focus back on Parliament, which is what all of us want.

  Q53 Mr Nuttall: What is your view on the idea put forward about having a time limit on statements? Assuming for the moment that we carry on with the oral statements, as has been the custom, should there be a limit? What's your view on the limit to the overall time and perhaps to the length of frontbench statements, which can often eat in to the overall time by 15 minutes or so?

  Hilary Benn: If we want to provide more opportunities, that is one of the ways in which we can do it. I know that time limits are a matter of debate and controversy, but then, we have applied them to speeches to give more people an opportunity to get in. As I indicated earlier, I think it really is a question of judgment. If you had a half-hour or 45-minute slot and were trying to shoehorn into that, in a rigid way, the kind of example that Mr Gale gave of a major terrorist outrage—that would be an occasion when the all the eyes of the nation would be on the House, rightly so, and the House should have a full opportunity to get information. In those circumstances, the Home Secretary coming to the House to report on what was happening could speak for 20 or 25 minutes to give us the facts. We should not create an over-rigid system. It comes back to the point about judgment. What is the subject? How much interest is there in it? How do you give it the appropriate amount of time?

  Q54 Chair: I think the Committee recognises all you are saying about the downside of having an arbitrary time limit on a statement, but what is your view on the other way of dealing with it—to have discretionary injury time, which could be given at the discretion of the Speaker after a certain period had elapsed? If it was clear that the mood of the House had taken everyone by surprise and the statement went on for an hour, the Speaker would then—for example, once 45 minutes had elapsed—have the power to reinstate all or part of that hour at the end of the business. What is your view?

  Hilary Benn: I think on that that I have would have a different view on days that ended at 7 o'clock. Let's talk about the parliamentary week. If there's a lot of injury time on a day when there will be votes at 10 o'clock, then there are questions about when we end and Members getting home and so on and so forth; and, obviously, on a Thursday, a lot of Members return to their constituencies, which is why we end at 6 o'clock. Having made that point, yes, that option could be looked at to ensure that we don't create pressures on Ministers. Sometimes, as a Minister, you wanted to make an oral statement but those managing the business of the House said, "Well, it is an Opposition day, and we've been criticised for eating into time," or, "There's another statement on this," and you found that you couldn't.

  That is another argument for making it possible in those circumstances to table a written statement, perhaps not having to wait for the next day, because you might say, "If I cannot make an oral statement, I shall table a written statement once I know the decision that I cannot make an oral statement." That's another change that could be considered to make it easier for information to be given contemporaneously to the House, without having to wait for the next day.

  I very much take the point that Sir George raised about the Thursday to Tuesday problem. We ought to do something about that, because we have our sitting times and hours, but stuff happens—events occur—and we want Parliament to be up to date, which is why urgent questions on oral questions, for example, is a sensible change to make.

  Chair: Do you want to add anything on that, Jenny?

  Q55 Mrs Chapman: Sir George was keen to press that he thought the House now put a premium—I believe that was how he described it—on finishing at a certain time and certainty about hours. Do you share that view, or do you take a slightly softer line and are more flexible in your thinking about that?

  Hilary Benn: Personally, to put my cards on the table, I was in favour of sticking with the 7.30 finish on a Tuesday. On Monday, people are travelling down from their constituencies. However, we need to think about the lateness of the hour at which the House finishes, so that is a consideration for Monday in relation to the injury time proposal, and, in relation to Thursday, Members being able to get back. It depends on how long the business will be extended. Otherwise, if you have a 7 o'clock finish on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, I do not think that a bit of injury time, of itself, would be an enormous problem, if the issue had been of great significance.

  The other way of looking at it is that, depending on the remaining business, the Speaker might take a view, looking at the number of people who have applied to speak in the debate, and say, "Well, actually, we might be stretching it out, and therefore injury time may not be required." You have to look at the totality of the rest of the day to decide how we will fit everything in. I think the Speaker is in a very good position to do that on our behalf.

  Q56 Sir Peter Soulsby: One of the other reasons that Sir George gave in his argument about the lack of notice for a 7 am statement was that when the Government have to give notice the night before, there is a disincentive to do that if there is any risk that the statement might not ultimately be given. How credible did you find that? Obviously, you have been there.

  Hilary Benn: For most things, you have a pretty clear idea that you want to make a statement, whether oral or written, because it will be the culmination of policy that has been prepared, developed and discussed in Government, and cleared over quite a long period of time. However, there will be occasions when you need to do something quite quickly. I think it is fair to say that the 7 o'clock proposal is really about being able to go on the media before 9.30 in the morning—that is how I would interpret it. In the main, the Government ought to be able to give notice to Members and Opposition spokespeople, and as a Minister I always thought that it was very important that we did so.

  Chair: Can we move to a possible House of Commons protocol and sanctions?

  Q57 Jacob Rees-Mogg: This is really the same question that I asked Sir George, but, particularly as you are now on the other side of the fence—gamekeeper turned poacher, whichever way you want to put it—do you think to some extent it is simply the natural course of events that Governments will be accused of leaking and Oppositions will get very cross, and then when the Opposition are in government, the reverse will happen; and that, therefore, trying to be too strict about it simply will not work?

  Hilary Benn: There are leaks and leaks. There are occasions when things come out of your Department as a Minister that you didn't want to come out, and you certainly didn't play any part in it. How do you deal with a Minister in such circumstances? He or she will say, "It genuinely had nothing at all to do with me, mate."

  The urgent question is the first and most important sanction, because it makes Ministers sit up, and it makes the point that the Speaker thinks, on behalf of the House, that the judgment you made, if you had given a written statement when it really should have been oral, was not the right one. It comes back to the point about "most important." How do you make that judgment?

  Secondly, I really do think that the House ought to have its own protocol in relation to this. For the reasons I set out earlier, I think it is really odd. Of course, the Government should say to Ministers, "You ought to take the House of Commons very seriously," but I think the House of Commons ought to say to Ministers, "You should take us seriously—and, by the way, this is what we expect." Another approach could be that if a UQ wasn't granted, the Speaker might write to a Minister and oblige him or her to give a written explanation of what on earth has been going on in those circumstances.

  Those are the two ideas I would offer. The difficulty with taking it further is who, in the end, is going to resolve the question of the "most important" or whatever words the House decides to use for any protocol that it draws up? That very much depends on your point of view.

  Q58 Jacob Rees-Mogg: So in a way the starting point is what statements ought to be made and when are they important enough to come to the Chamber? That may tie in with Westminster Hall and the things we discussed earlier. If they are not important enough for the Chamber are they, in fact, important enough for oral statements? The question is: how would the House write a protocol that a Government would allow to pass through the House? It's a case of who would bell the cat, isn't it? The Government like a system whereby it is essentially a matter of ministerial and prime ministerial discretion because then, if something goes wrong, they can get away with it, or do you think that is unfair?

  Hilary Benn: It's going to be very hard to have a system under which the House gets into conversations in Departments about possible announcements and statements and says, "Well, my view is that this is a most important one and you ought to do this." Ultimately you have to leave it to the Government to make those decisions. The protocol is about how the House expresses its view when it thinks that Ministers have got it wrong—for example, when they have announced something and they haven't had the courtesy to tell anyone about it at all.

  A recent example is the defence treaties signed with the French Government. There are also past examples, so I am not making a party point at all. Looking at that example, it struck me that it was pretty darned important, frankly, and that the House ought know what's going on and ought to get to see the documents. I checked in the Library as soon as that statement was over and the documents had appeared, but if it hadn't been for the fuss and the fact that there was an urgent question, I am not sure that that would have been the case. The House ultimately will be the judge of whether Ministers have got it right. The question is, what is the appropriate way of expressing that? The UQ and the other suggestion I have made are the two ideas I came up with when I was reflecting on this. The Committee will no doubt have other views of its own.

  Q59 Jacob Rees-Mogg: How does this affect the position of the Speaker? If he is seen always to be the one who is bashing the Government for failing to do things, does that begin to politicise his position?

  Hilary Benn: In the case of a UQ, obviously the Speaker is responding to a question that a Member has put in, so he is acting as the vehicle for giving expression to the view of one Member and he will make a judgment—in the end it is a judgment. In the case of my second suggestion, well, that could be the Speaker acting on a complaint, representation or whatever. I take your point: one wants to protect the Speaker from any appearance that he is acting in a partisan way. He is responding to the House—the will of the House.

  Q60 Chair: I think that's the point. If we have a House protocol, the Speaker would be the natural person to enforce it. But the protocol is a protocol of the House.

  Hilary Benn: That's exactly it. I agree.

  Q61 Chair: Can I put to you something suggested to us that has not convinced us, just to see what your view is? One suggestion was made to us that where a Minister comprehensively leaks information that is to be contained in an oral statement, the Speaker should have the power to refuse to allow the Minister to make that statement. We are not entirely convinced that that is the way to deal with it. I would welcome your comments.

  Hilary Benn: Well, it depends whether you gave the Minister notice that you were going to do that. If you had been working away and you turned up and the Speaker said, "Order, order. Since I've read about all of this in The Times this morning, I think we've all heard about it. Thanks very much. We're going to move on to the next business," it would have a certain salutary effect. The only trouble is that the conclusion that Ministers might draw is, "Well, in that case, I don't have to think so much about statements because I can just carry on doing what I've been doing." But the first time it happened, it would certainly lead to a lot of raised eyebrows, would it not?

  Chair: I think so.

  Q62 Mr Nuttall: May I come in there, Chairman? The only drawback is that backbenchers would not have the opportunity to question the Minister.

  Hilary Benn: I think that considering the momentary satisfaction compared with a loss of opportunity for the House to question the Minister, in the end, the opportunity to question the Minister is really important.

  Q63 Chair: Is there anything you want to add?

  Hilary Benn: No. I think I've covered all the ground I wanted to. I hope it has been helpful.

  Chair: Thank you for your time. We have a very difficult task ahead of us, as you can probably see, but you and Sir George have made it less difficult. For that, we are most grateful.

  Hilary Benn: Very kind—thank you.

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